There is much debate on how to define and measure student success. At first glance, it seems simple: a successful student is a first-year who enrolls in college full-time, persists through terms, and then progresses to degree completion. However, the routes students take in higher education are seldom this traditional and straightforward. Factors such as incoming/outgoing transfer students, dropouts, and academic suspension add to the complexity. Are students who transfer to other institutions and graduate with a degree a success? The struggle is trying to understand these enrollment patterns and to predict a student’s academic career.
Definition & Objective
To tackle this issue, an institution must define what student success means to them based on their mission and student goals. Once defined, a policy to measure progress can be developed. It should use metrics tracked over time, and then improved through means of student engagement or enrollment strategies. Our objective here is to gain a better understanding by reviewing the five most commonly seen metrics used in student success: retention rates, graduation rates, time to completion, academic performance, and tracking educational goals.
Retention is the most discussed topic for student success. Retained students persist through an academic program to graduate with a degree. Retention rates assist institutions in determining how many students progressed with satisfactory academic results. They also help identify why students left the institution, and help uncover issues such as insufficient resources. Higher retention rates also lead to certain benefits. These include the potential for increased funding and an elevated ranking to attract quality prospects and faculty.
Still, there are issues when focusing solely on retention rates. As mentioned, many students no longer follow the traditional path in higher education. A student can transfer, take a leave of absence, or leave prematurely. These situations are especially prevalent at 2-year institutions, where there are higher transfer rates and where degree completion may not be the student’s goal. These examples explain why poor retention rates may not tell the whole story at an institution. Retention rates should be framed in different ways and utilized in conjunction with other metrics, to create a more meaningful metric.
Closely related to retention rates are graduation rates. This is the number of students enrolled in an institution who sought and achieved a degree. There are different ways to frame this metric. One is the federal definition. This is defined as a first-time, full-time student graduating with a bachelor’s degree after six years or an associate’s degree after three years. Depending on the definition, the resulting metrics can change drastically.
Many of the issues with retention rates also apply to graduation rates, such as the unpredictability of student paths. For example, the federal definition of graduation rates would not count many transfers or part-time students. Again, this is more common at community colleges. To address this issue, you can gather data in separate student categories by closely examining student types and tracking them in ranges (six years, three years, etc.) that better fit the institution.
Time to Completion
Time to completion is the time it takes for a student to attain the desired degree. This metric, while slightly different, can also be measured in terms of total credit accumulation. This metric allows institutions to measure whether students are taking longer than average to complete their degrees. One can then identify if there are excess courses, inefficient use of resources (e.g., institutional spending or student tuition), or delays in core courses that lead to higher costs for the students and the institution.
The key to tracking this metric is setting the proper policies and practices to help accelerate student success. By evaluating programs, courses, and degree requirements, institutions can track higher education data over time to find out the rate in which students are completing credits and to determine if they will complete their degree on time.
Academic performance refers to metrics that measure and track academic progress and achievement. They include GPA, rank-in-class, or first-year performance in core subjects. GPA is a straightforward metric that correlates to student grades. First-year performance in core subjects can indicate better performance in future terms. These metrics determine how well students are persisting through terms and predict the overall success in the students’ program of study. Poor academic performance can affect other metrics such as retention and graduation rates, and lengthen time to completion, resulting in more time that a student stays in the institution.
By tracking these metrics over time, institutions can identify patterns – both positive and negative – and tie them to specific courses, programs, or instruction. This provides the institution an opportunity to improve quality in these places and/or implement changes to better assist the students.
Tracking Educational Goals
Many 2-year institutions have been placing increasing importance on a student’s educational goal rather than common metrics such as retention rates. Unlike context-dependent metrics like retention rates, focusing on the student’s educational goal may be more indicative of student success. These institutions see students who enroll with the intention of transferring, or who take courses to earn certifications for specific careers and then leave prematurely without a degree. These students would not be counted in retention and graduation rates. However, if these were the intentions of the students when they enrolled in the institution, they should be viewed as successful.
To track the progress of educational goals, institutions must plan and set policy. Students should be encouraged to meet with an adviser and set a goal from a list of predetermined goals (including earning a degree and specific job placement). A workflow should be put in place, one with data points and that tracks the student’s academic life. This process is more involved. It requires resources and coordination among technical staff, instructors and advisers to provide student engagement. However, it can also result in benefits such as enhanced student satisfaction and a reputation for meeting student goals.
Defining student success is often difficult and confusing. There may never be complete agreement on how student success should be defined. Hopefully, by understanding the five metrics listed above, you can drive discussions at your institution and work toward a solution that benefits students and staff alike.
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